Yann Martel is back in animal allegory with Beatrice and Virgil, a tale about a dead donkey and a stuffed monkey that might be a stand-in for the Holocaust, might be an extended examination of writer’s block, might be a plea on behalf of disappearing wildlife or might be an argument for using art to reveal the truth of history.
This is Martel’s long-awaited third novel, following 2002’s Life of Pi which won the Man Booker Prize and widespread acclaim. Pi, a story about a young castaway in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, examined some weighty ideas as well but it was, ultimately, a charming and accessible book. Beatrice and Virgil is accessible, at times beautiful, but not exactly charming.
A writer named Henry has worked for five years on the book to follow his award-winning, bestselling second novel that features wild animals and…So we know that Martel took five years to write this book but wait, it’s not that easy. The fictional author has hoped to capture the Holocaust in a flip book—one-half fiction and one-half essay. His publishers crush that idea and he crawls into a depression that keeps his hands off the keys and his mind occupied with waiting on customers at a café, working in an amateur theatrical group, taking long walks with his shelter dog and sitting for hours petting his shelter cat. His wife is an industrious and practical soul who interjects a note of sanity once in a while and retains her self-protective instincts.
Henry continues to receive fan mail for the successful book that he dutifully answers. One envelope contains a highlighted version of a Flaubert story about torturing animals and a few sides of a script about talking animals who are describing the experience of a pear. The scripted animals are lifted straight from Waiting for Godot—their conversation has the same irresistible cadence and logic, their personalities contain a vulnerable childlike quality that endears them. Eventually we learn–in dialog and stage directions that evoke Nazi Germany and the extermination of the Jews–that Beatrice and Virgil are starving to death and trying to escape torturers and murderers. The package contains a three-line plea for help and is signed by someone named Henry, surname illegible.
Blocked-writer Henry tracks down playwright-Henry and discovers a wondrous taxidermy shop with a taciturn octogenarian owner-taxidermist, a collection of rare and endangered fauna that could outclass a natural history museum, a stuffed duo named Beatrice, the donkey, and Virgil, a red howler monkey, who are guides not unlike Dante’s through an imagined heaven and an experienced hell.
The writing is marvelous. The sad scenes are heartbreaking. The mounting sense of evil is disturbing. The excruciating detail observed is revelatory and impressive. The extreme borrowing from Beckett is a treasure because Beckett did it so well, but somewhat off-putting because Beckett did it so well. I hated the end. The end was, to me, melodramatic, abrupt and out of sync with the rest of the book and the gradual emergence of meaning. After the main tale ends, a coda of thirteen hideous riddles–“games” supplied at the taxidermist’s request by blocked-writer Henry–returns the focus to the Holocaust and resonates more evenly with the rest of the book.
Martel has a son named Theo, the name Henry gives to his newborn son in the book. Martel has a scholar’s grab bag of impressive literary references, as do his characters. Martel can write a scene of torture and subjugation that will take your skin off. Still, Life of Pi was satisfying, erudite and oddly magical. Beatrice and Virgil is fluid but difficult and disjointed. Maybe it’s the uncomfortable subject matter—the “Horrors” of the donkey and the monkey stand in for specific genocidal horrors of our own society. The animals pass the time minutely observing the world around them, bringing the observed and the remembered to vivid life. Martel makes the point that when we fail to really see, we too easily destroy. A skinny book—a mercy to a time-challenged daily reader–but not an easy read.
Beatrice and Virgil: A Novel Yann Martel | Spiegel & Grau 2010